Generation of Terror

Watching the sudden upsurge of religious-motivated terrorism in Europe in 2004-2005, American media in particular often suggested that outbreaks of this sort represented a radical departure from previous tranquility, that European governments were facing a wholly new reality. A worldwide jihad movement seemed to have arrived on Europe's shores more or less overnight, presumably imported by the continent's new migrants. In reality, Islamist attacks—admittedly on a smaller scale—had been in progress over the previous twenty years, particularly in France. Making this point is not just to plead for a more comprehensive accounting of terrorist violence but to suggest a rather different view of its causation. If in fact the violence was a post-9/11 phenomenon, then we could plausibly associate it with al-Qaeda and its ideology. In reality, though, Middle Eastern-related terrorism in Europe has far more complex origins, which cannot be readily associated with any one ideology, or necessarily, with Islam itself.

However horrifying the Madrid and London attacks, they are not surprising for anyone who recalls the prolonged wave of Palestinian-related terrorism that swept European nations between 1970 and 1976, and that reached its high-water mark with the Munich Olympic massacre of 1972. Some of the European police officers attempting today to detect and suppress Middle Eastern terrorism on their territory are literally the sons and daughters of that earlier generation who pursued almost identical tasks in the early 1970s. In those days too, Europeans lived in fear of a mega-terror attack that would likely be orchestrated by the Palestinian followers of Abu Nidal. At first sight, connections between this wave and the recent attacks are not obvious, not least because the Palestinian campaigns were clearly not Islamist in motivation. The leaders were leftist or socialist, and the most active groupings, like the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and its offshoots, were founded and largely led by Arab Christians. The Abu Nidal group was one of several adhering to the militantly secular Ba'athist regimes of Syria and Iraq.2

But continuities do exist. After the main Palestinian campaigns subsided, extensive terrorist networks still remained in place across Europe, with sleeper agents and expert bomb makers, and arms supplies. During the 1980s, these groups remained active as agents or subsidiaries for several Middle Eastern governments and secret services, who waged clandestine war across Europe, partly to advance their diplomatic objectives, partly to enhance their standing within the world of Palestinian politics. Iran, Iraq, Syria, Algeria, and Libya all cultivated and used their European networks. One powerful engine driving militancy was the Gulf War of 1980-1988, which set Iraq against Iran and Syria, leading both sides to put pressure on European governments to ensure a steady supply of military hardware. In 1986, a series of bombing attacks against civilian targets in Paris generated a sense of national crisis in France. The campaign was eventually traced to agents of the Iranian secret service, who sought to put diplomatic pressure on the French government. Making the investigation of such attacks all the more difficult was the use of subcontractors, groups or individuals who were hired by intelligence agencies to transport weapons or to carry out the actual attacks. Such subsidiaries, who would have little knowledge of the actual motives behind a given attack, were commonly drawn from Middle Eastern immigrant populations, often from underworld subcultures. Otherwise, though, these earlier waves of terror had only minimal connections with Muslim populations in Europe, which were then far smaller than they are today.

Terrorism was an imported phenomenon, and this fact is significant for any hopes of reducing or eliminating such attacks in future. The prevalence of terrorism on European soil is a function of both geography and history, factors that would still apply even if—to take an outrageous hypothetical—the continent expelled all its Muslim residents tomorrow. Europeans live in immediate proximity to some deeply troubled and violent parts of the world, from which they could be separated only by erecting unimaginably high physical barriers. Europe also provides a lax security environment, which was easily exploited by the Palestinians in the 1970s, much as it is by Islamist militants today. After decades of progress to unification, Europe still comprises some thirty nations, each of which plays host to numerous embassies, consulates, and diplomatic missions, and many of these serve nations sympathetic to radical causes. The principle of diplomatic immunity makes it easy to smuggle weapons, information, or even individuals between nations, and allows intelligence agencies to offer clandestine support for terrorist movements. Also, Europe is an easy place in which to hide. So many states are crowded into such a relatively small region that militants find no difficulty in fleeing from one jurisdiction to another. Different governments have different priorities and outlooks, so that a militant might be seen in one country as a lethal danger and in another as a mere dissident. Such factors made Europe a happy hunting ground for (white, non-Muslim) terrorists, bombers, and assassins in the 1890s and the 1930s, and continue to do so today.

Regardless of the motivating ideology, then, Europe becomes the theater for Middle Eastern terrorism because it is an open society in which militants can move easily, and in which rival states and causes can pursue their conflicts through proxies and surrogates. Moreover, European nations are inextricably connected with Middle Eastern affairs through their dependence on oil from that region, from their economic contacts with Middle Eastern states, and by their long traditions of military support for various regimes, manifested above all in sales of armaments. Another factor is European political and diplomatic weight, which currently makes it a plausible alternative to the United States in global affairs; it makes excellent sense for Palestinians and other minorities to win European support for their causes, whether by reason or intimidation. Terrorism goes with the neighborhood, regardless of the composition of Europe's own populations.

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